Ish Turns Passion For Game Into Spark For Suns
When a 10-year-old Ish Smith saw the blank cards that invited contestants to fill in their names, he didn’t hesitate.
No, that wasn’t his real name. That was the then-Hornets fan’s way of living his enthusiasm for one of his favorite players: Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, the shortest player in NBA history at 5-foot-3.
The next day Smith’s house phone rang. Turns out the card Smith had filled out had been the winning entry for a new car.
“Is this Tyrone Smith?” they asked.
“No, we don’t have a Tyrone Smith here.”
Smith still shakes his head and laughs when he remembers the scene that could have doubled as a script for a sitcom.
“We couldn’t win it ‘cause it was the wrong name,” he said.
That wasn’t the last time the eventual Suns point guard got in trouble for impersonating other NBA players. Smith constantly tried out dribble moves he’d seen Bogues and former Pistons great Isiah Thomas – another undersized point guard. In his eagerness to try out and practice those moves, he often couldn't wait to get all the way out the front door.
“I was always in the house dribbling, getting in trouble,” he recalled. “'No dribbling in the house.'”
Eventually Smith’s obsession with being like NBA greats started paying off. His high school coach took advantage of his speed-based game, and gave the 5-10 guard the keys to a fast-paced offense.
He then landed at Wake Forest – the same place Bogues made an NBA-worthy name for himself some 20 years earlier.
Smith blossomed his senior year (2009-10), averaging 13.2 points, 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds per contest. It helped that he’d grown an extra two inches in college, leaving him at a dead even six-feet tall.
Television and mom were Smith’s only company for the 2010 draft. Several teams had expressed interest, but none of them bit in the form of the draft pick (Only five point guards were taken that year. One was Eric Bledsoe. Two others are no longer in the league).
Smith doesn’t remember the draft bitterly. On the contrary, he says “it was for the best,” enabling him to sign with a team of his choosing.
He eventually earned his way onto the Houston Rockets roster before being traded that season to Memphis. He’d make equally short stops in Golden State, Orlando and Milwaukee, making him a five-team journeyman by the time he had two seasons under his belt.
Again, Smith didn’t take his ride on the career carousel personally. He doesn’t circle game dates against his former teams, doesn’t think about being “passed over.” The jerseys from those five teams are in a box somewhere at his mother’s house.
When the Suns acquired him from Milwaukee last summer, it wasn’t clear what his role would be as the fourth point guard on the roster at the time. Further trades and Jeff Hornacek’s dual playmaker system, however, have allowed Smith to flourish as an on-demand sparkplug off the bench.
“At all times I’m prepared and ready whenever [Hornacek’s] calling my number or name and hopefully I bring that spark,” Smith said.
He hasn’t disappointed. Bledsoe’s knee injury, suffered last week against the Clippers, opened up a need for another playmaker in Hornacek’s system. Smith obliged on Saturday, tying Brandon Knight for game-high assist honors (eight) despite playing just 19 minutes to Knight’s 35.
The performance marked the second time Smith has logged eight assists in a game this season, supporting the team-wide attitude of “ready when needed.”
Goran Dragic, who was able to rest the entire fourth quarter thanks to Smith and the rest of the reserves, wasn’t surprised by the energy he infused into the team.
“He’s crafty,” Dragic said. “He’s small and quick. For me, personally, I don’t like to guard small people. It’s really tough for me. The most important thing he’s got, he brings intensity in practice.”
Smith has never doubted those qualities in himself, but admits Phoenix has proved the best place to display them. When asked why he’s seemed to settle into a niche with the Suns, the third-year guard cited the team before himself.
“Probably more than anything, the fit here,” Smith said. “Some other teams might want to play a different way, opportunity running. Here, miss or make, we want to run, run, run, run…[Hornacek] just wants us to stay aggressive and push the ball.”
The system allows Smith to model the very player he emulated as a kid. On offense, he's constantly pushing and probing for a gap, letdown or lane at the top of the defense. On the other end, he's become a "pest", according to Hornacek.
"When you’re on the smaller side, that’s what you have to be," Hornacek said. "You have to be that pest, defensively, picking guys up full-court, pushing the ball for us. We want to get the ball up and down. He’s very good at that. That’s what we expect out of him,"
Those expectations, however, come on an as-needs basis. Smith has earned confidence from the coaching staff with consistent play while understanding opportunities may be inconsistent. In games Dragic or Bledsoe have missed, Smith has averaged 16.1 minutes per contest and usually earns praise from Hornacek after those games.
“We knew that he could push the ball, knew he could pass it,” Hornacek said after Saturday’s win. “He’s a very good ball-handler, obviously. We expected that if we needed him to go in our style, it would work well.”
For Smith, the feeling is mutual.
“The fans and [the media] have been great just embracing what I do,” he said.